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Tuesday, May 21, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Former Spokane Valley firefighter fired in 2012 for religious emails awarded $900,000 settlement

Capt. Jon Sprague stands with firefighters during a wildland fire training session on Wednesday, June 27, 2012, at in Spokane Valley, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Capt. Jon Sprague stands with firefighters during a wildland fire training session on Wednesday, June 27, 2012, at in Spokane Valley, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

The Spokane Valley Fire Department will pay a captain fired in 2012 for sending religious emails $900,000.

Jon Sprague, who served as a firefighter and captain with the department for more than 18 years, claimed the department violated his First Amendment rights by disciplining him for sending religious emails to his Spokane Christian Firefighters Fellowship group and posting on the department’s bulletin board.

The six-year legal dispute between Sprague and the fire department began when his termination was upheld by the department’s Civil Service Commission. Spokane County Superior Court dismissed the case – a decision also upheld by the state Court of Appeals.

Then, last year, the Washington state Supreme Court noted the Court of Appeals declined to address the merit of Sprague’s claims and that he “met the initial burden to show that the SFVD’s restrictions on his speech violated the First Amendment,” according to court documents. The Supreme Court ruled the department engaged in “viewpoint discrimination” by allowing some personal content on the employee bulletin board, but excluding Sprague’s content.

Although the department had a policy that limits work email use for department business, it didn’t have a policy governing its electronic bulletin board used by more than 180 employees for a variety of personal business, including selling snow tires, requesting tickets to concerts or seeking recommendations for a babysitter, according to court documents.

The case was set to go to trial this year, but the fire department’s insurance company – which is responsible for paying the settlement – opted to arrive at an agreement with Sprague.

“The Spokane Valley Fire Department respects all the rights of its employees. The department maintains that Mr. Sprague was properly terminated for insubordination arising from his repeated refusal to follow policy and orders,” the department said in a statement. “The parties agreed that the settlement is not an admission of wrongdoing by any party and was made solely for the purposes of avoiding the time and expense of continued litigation.”

“The department’s insurance carrier, which is responsible for the settlement payment, advocated for the same. The department is pleased that this matter, which began in 2012, will soon be concluded so the department can continue to focus on providing high quality services to its communities,” the fire department added.

Sprague – who is no longer a firefighter and has moved to Western Washington – is satisfied with the settlement, said Matt Albrecht, attorney for Sprague.

“He was ready for it to be done, and I know he’s excited to look forward to new things and have this behind him,” Albrecht said. “At this point, he’s happy with his new career and new city.”

Albrecht told The Spokesman-Review last year that the case could set a precedent for police and fire departments to examine their policies.

He continues to maintain that position.

“This just isn’t about fire and police departments, this is all public employees,” he said. “Just because you are in a public employee position, it doesn’t mean a religious person has less rights than another person.”

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